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Sayler building a 'Division I environment' at USD
But challenges await USD athletic director after frenetic first year
It was one year and two days ago that a 40-year-old David Sayler, with seven different schools on his resume since 1996, was introduced as the next athletic director at the University of South Dakota.
The Connecticut native was setting foot in the state for the first time in his life during that visit - South Dakota being one of the few places where a series of promotions within college athletics had yet to take him.
Curiosity, both on his part and on the part of the coaches and fans who were attending the announcement, was a big part of the deal that day, which included all the standard stuff except for one thing:
When asked about the need for a basketball/volleyball facility to complement the DakotaDome - a question he had to know was coming - he didn’t immediately retreat to an explanation of the convoluted protocol involving committees and chairman heads and strategic 10-year plans.
Instead, Sayler said it was time to build it.
In defense of his predecessor Joel Nielsen, Sayler was likely the first to get an enthusiastic green light from USD President Jim Abbott to bring an assertive attitude to the public on the issue. But to Sayler’s credit in the days since then, amid a balky economy and reluctance on the part of the Board of Regents, there has been no softening of the message.
“It drives me all the time,” Sayler said this week. “I think about it all the time. … I’ve never been a part of a project that could be this galvanizing for everybody. People understand this, they get it. They know there’s a need. Now let’s get it done.”
Colleagues say commitment to the task at hand is a defining personality trait for Sayler, who carried a diverse set of titles with increasing responsibilities within the athletic departments at Connecticut, Georgia, Hartford, Houston, Bowling Green, Oregon State and most recently Rice, where he was the top assistant to AD Chris Del Conte.
“Dave never gets too high or too low,” said Del Conte, now the AD at Texas Christian. “Through the wins and losses, the good and the bad, he stays pretty steady. No. 2, his word is as good as gold. When he says he’s going to do something, you can count on it getting done.”
Workers are at the DakotaDome ripping out old seats this summer, while the marketing staff is hoping they do a better job of filling the new ones about to be installed. Aiding immeasurably in that effort will be a Summit League basketball schedule in 2011-12, along with full NCAA Division I eligibility in all sports in 2012-13.
“He’s really trying very hard to foster a Division I environment here,” said men’s basketball coach Dave Boots, who has worked for four different athletic directors since being hired in 1988. “With him, you’re getting a straightforward guy who wants to take care of business. I enjoy that kind of relationship with an AD.”
As Boots well knows, Sayler will be joining his coaches in presiding over a pivotal point in school history at USD. The difference is that, though there is a first season in the Summit League this year, the time is coming where the transitional process will no longer have specific days of reckoning. The novelty of reaching up to Division I is soon to give way to the grind of staying there.
“The Summit League is going to give us a base to see where we’re at exactly,” Sayler said. “It’s going to give us a measuring stick, something every department needs. It will give us more of a sense of permanence with our fan base and everybody else in terms of what we have to do and what we were talking about for so long.”
Using Sayler’s first year as another sort of measuring stick, those 12 months definitely had some bite, beginning with an attempt to find a permanent home for the football program - another of his announced Day 1 projects - that took unexpected twists and turns.
A dalliance with the Big Sky Conference that would have sent all Coyote sports that way - while abandoning the Summit League before any game was played - was avoided with a last-second offer from the Missouri Valley Football Conference that surprised everyone and shocked most. ADs could work an entire career and not deal with such unusual circumstances. Sayler was in Vermillion about three months at the time.
“When I got here it seemed like our football conference situation was solidified for at least a few years, then that changed very quickly,” Sayler said. “That made things a little more turbulent. Getting the arena talk started was something that happened a lot more quickly than some thought it would and that probably added to the turbulence. But in that case, turbulence was a good thing.”
The combustible elements of the job aren’t going anywhere, of course, but Coyote fans can take some comfort in knowing their AD made it through the first gauntlet in pretty fair shape.
“The fact is that athletic administrators can prepare for being an actual athletic director for years and not really be ready for some of the things you’re going to have to deal with,” said Sayler mentor Dutch Baughman, former Oregon State AD and now executive director of the Division 1A Athletic Directors Association.
“You can get a graduate degree in athletic administration, but the reality of what someone has to do in a position like David’s is a lot more pragmatic. No matter what you do, when you find yourself in that chair for the first time, you’re going to feel overwhelmed by the responsibility. But David was as prepared for this job as anyone I’d ever seen.”
If Sayler is or was overwhelmed, he’s not letting on. His commitment to seeing the arena and other accompanying improvements come to fruition - estimated price tag $52 million - is fierce. It is clear he sees the project as a step that could forever change the perception of USD athletics with far-reaching positive effects for the whole school.
But officially leading a fundraising campaign that would get the dirt flying awaits the permission of the Board of Regents, which may or may not address the topic at a Regents meeting scheduled this week.
Regardless, there’s no sanctioned bylaw set up to impede his enthusiasm for beginning the battle.
“To me it’s a statement about where we are in Division I - of getting through this process and coming out the other side,” he said. “I can’t wait to get the first brick put in the ground.”
It’s not the only area where Sayler would like to see movement on the part of the Regents, who have clung to a pre-Division I attitude - many would say to their credit - on issues such as Title IX, where the state’s schools have to clear a higher bar than is federally required.
Not being able to offer multi-year contracts to coaches would be another example of the rules not yet being tweaked to reflect a new set of circumstances dealt with by the state’s two biggest universities.
“The onus to change things like that is on us, frankly,” Sayler said. “As Division I institutions - with South Dakota State - we have to show that those stereotypical negative things people feared could happen in Division I are simply not happening here. In fact, the reverse is happening. We’re recruiting better student-athletes and the GPAs of our kids has gone up. Our graduation rates have gone up. The numbers are there - it’s a fact.”
Fan interest ‘lacking’
It’s also a fact that overall interest in the three major sports at USD - football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball - has stagnated during the transition. This has happened even though all three have weathered the competitive transitional bumps as gracefully as could be expected.
Division I competition has yet to lead to Division I commitment from the fan base, in short. For that, the Summit League and its SDSU games and repeating sets of other competitive rivals are sure to help, but how much? It’s going to take more than a few halftime bookstore gift certificate drawings to reverse a trend toward disinterest that began in the final years of Division II, while the North Central Conference was unraveling.
“Pride in our institution is something that is severely lacking,” Sayler said. “We need to start beating our chests a little more about our story. There are great things going on here in Vermillion that I don’t think get out nearly enough. And I’m not just talking about athletics, I’m talking about the whole university.”
Del Conte credits Sayler’s ability to listen as one of his strongest qualities. Coming in as he did, with no local history behind him, it made perfect sense to lean on that strength initially.
“He knew he was going to be dealing with a lot of people who have invested a lot of commitment to the athletic program and the university,” Del Conte said. “They don’t need a wrecking ball. You need to see where you can fit in to make the institution better than it is.”
Though Sayler is not from a coaching background - his approach both publicly and privately is very light on shouted platitudes, in other words - it’s easy to see that he’s figured out where he fits in. Building an arena is an obvious example, but only as a vehicle to address what he sees as an ultimate goal.
“Changing the culture of pride in who we are and what we’re accomplishing,” he said, “is a big piece of what we have left to do.”
Reach Mick Garry, Argus Leader